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In the early 1990s I worked in a bar in the West End of Edinburgh, near to Haymarket station. In those pre-Starbucks days, the large buildings on the corners of the Edwardian terraces were still banks. At the other end of the street could be found the splendidly-named West End Fish and just across the way stood the war memorial erected to the players and supporters of a local football club who had died in the Great War.

Our pub was a mixture of locals’ drinking den (it was a cellar bar) and gastro-pub before they were all the rage. The owners of our place had culinary pretensions, which manifested as Sole Bonne Femme, vegetable crepes and chilli nachos; the one concession to ordinary pub grub was allowed on Sundays, when we did the All Day Breakfasts. You know the thing – sausages, fried egg, bacon, grilled tomato, and occasionally potato waffles – perfect hangover food. They were extremely popular and we did dozens of them.

After 3 years of working in that place I had gone from a fairly chipper and cheeky barmaid to a snarling surly animal, as I slowly realised that whilst bar and waitressing work was great for supplementing the student grant and handy in times of high unemployment, it was not exactly what I had planned as a full-on career. Customers asked for ice at their peril. To prevent me from scaring people too much, I was given kitchen tasks, and proved to be quite apt. I liked working in the warm kitchen, and was fast with the orders, plus I could develop my soup-making skills. Every day, the duty cook had to make a huge pot of soup for the next day, and I got stuck straight in. I befriended the rather shabby greengrocer across the road (the shop was shabby, not the Italian greengrocer or his two handsome sons). They loved me because I bought all the old, wilted, on-the-turn veg; Juliano would save me bunches of sad watercress and asparagus and I would transform them into bowls of (always vegetarian) delight. To this day I maintain that the best soup is made from vegetables that are past their best. As well as these exotics, I experimented with Broccoli and Brie, Stilton and Celery, Cream of Courgette and the good old leek and tattie. I once made a tureen of carrot and orange soup and a regular (nicknamed Chief, because he called everyone…erm…Chief….) proclaimed it to be ‘beezer’ which was a high accolade indeed.

On Sundays the routine was slightly different and I was occasionally on All Day Breakfast duties. I shared this honour turn about with a lad called Gavin, a clever but troubled soul who liked an occasional drink. Gav’s speciality was to take a hot potato waffle, top it with baked beans and grated cheddar, and then stick it under the grill until it bubbled. I was particularly proud of my mushrooms and tomatoes. The months/years wore on. I went part-time just doing lunches, but worked a full day on Sundays. Other employment beckoned and I finally made the decision to leave the bar and stop smelling of deep fat fryers. My last shift was a Sunday and my co-workers Andy, John and Gavin had told me in the previous week that I would have an easy time of it. Gavin would do the breakfasts, the other pair would serve at the bar, and I could lounge about smoking fags and reading the Sunday papers.

For the last time I donned my greying shapeless polo shirt, black leggings and Doc Martens and stomped up the road to work. I had had a few drinks the night before, knowing that the next day would be my last shift, so I was tired and a bit groggy and looking forward to eight hours of tea drinking and toast-eating. I arrived first to find the place empty, so I set about hoovering and putting the chairs down. Andy and John arrived and I announced my intention of getting the kettle on. Ah, they said. There’s been a slight change of plan. Gavin can’t make it. What? Why not? I cried. Well, he was pissed last night and got arrested and spent the night in the police cells. You’ll have to cook the breakfasts.

As fate would have it, it was one of our busiest Sundays for months and I spent hours frying eggs and heating up baked beans, cursing to high heaven and grinding my teeth every time I heard Gavin’s name mentioned. Finally, once all the greasy pans had been cleaned, I poured myself a pint and sat at the bar. I was looking forward to going home, pouring a hot bath, reading a book and having an early night. Andy and John popped up. They waved a card at me and handed over a bunch of tatty Michaelmas daisies. What’s this? My last shift. I was leaving. The end of an era. No word of farewells from the owners (who had not known what to make of the world’s grumpiest barmaid with degrees coming out of her ears), or indeed the rest of the staff. I was quite touched that someone had thought to mark the occasion, and we had a few celebratory pints before I headed home.

My years of barwork did nothing for my lungs or my liver, but they honed my soup-making skills a treat – indeed, where I became a proper Soup Dragon. I met some grand folk whilst pulling pints (including Mr Dragon) and I remember my grubby daisies with fondness. But I still had to cook the breakfasts on my last shift and if I ever see Gavin again I will kill him.

Aster novi-belgii White Ladies

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